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Canada has determined the historic Franklin Expedition shipwreck discovered in the Arctic last month is in fact HMS Erebus. (Francois Etienne Musin/Alamy)
Canada has determined the historic Franklin Expedition shipwreck discovered in the Arctic last month is in fact HMS Erebus. (Francois Etienne Musin/Alamy)

Franklin wreck found in Arctic identified as captain’s ship Add to ...

Canada has determined the historic Franklin Expedition shipwreck discovered in the Arctic last month is in fact HMS Erebus, the vessel on which Sir John Franklin sailed.

It’s another puzzle solved in the enthralling story of the famous British expedition that tried to traverse the Northwest Passage but ended in misery with all 129 crew members perishing.

Underwater camera shows images of the Franklin discovery (The Globe and Mail)

The Erebus was the vessel that Franklin occupied as the commander of the expedition and was the base for the captain’s quarters.

Stephen Harper, whose government had backed annual searches for the lost Franklin expedition as a demonstration of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, announced the news of the ship’s identification Wednesday in the House of Commons.

The ship was first discovered somewhere in Queen Maud Gulf west of O’Reilly Island early last month and was confirmed as a Franklin expedition ship on Sept. 7.

But Parks Canada required more dives to determine whether the find was HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, the two Franklin expedition ships that disappeared in the mid-19th century.

Underwater archeologists with Parks Canada positively identified the vessel following more than a half-dozen dives in mid-September. They took measurements of the wreck and captured several hours of underwater video and thousands of still photographs at the time.

The divers also observed the wreck up close. It is in excellent condition for a mid-19th century shipwreck, likely because of the preservative qualities of frigid Arctic seawater, and divers were able to glean the identity from looking at specific details of the ship.

The Parks Canada team used measurements gathered directly from the ship as well as multi-beam sonar imagery collected by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. They also relied on physical observations of the wreck and the footage gathered.

The archeologists also conducted a comparative analysis using historical ship drawings.

The Franklin search team expedition leader was Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology team at Parks Canada and a member of the dive team that surveyed the wreck.

The dive team also included Ryan Harris, head archeologist for the past seven years of the Franklin search and part of the survey team that made the discovery, as well as Jonathan Moore, senior underwater archeologist and another member of the team that made the initial discovery.

The dive and sonar operations were supported by the research vessel Martin Bergmann, and the Canadian Coast Guard’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier as well as the Royal Canadian Navy. Smaller research vessels, R/V Investigator and the Gannett and Kinglett from the Canadian Hydrographic Service, were also used. R/V Martin Bergmann is owned by the Arctic Research Foundation, an organization formed by BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie, who played an instrumental role in the discovery of the Franklin ship.

Victorian England was enthralled by the story of Franklin’s expedition, which failed after the vessels become locked in ice and the crews perished. Successive British recovery missions failed to find the ships but managed to chart significant portions of the Arctic – a legacy that benefited Canadians for years to come.

Since 2008, six searches led by Parks Canada have scoured hundreds of square kilometres of Arctic seabed, a hunt driven by what a senior Conservative called Mr. Harper’s “genuine, nerdy interest” in the romantic story but also a desire to engage in myth-making that might capture the imagination of Canadians.

It’s possible the ship may never be raised but left in its resting place after artifacts are removed because the risks of extraction, and the cost of preservation, will be very steep.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, is trying to keep private explorers at bay as long as possible. It not only refuses to pinpoint the location of the wreck but also adamantly declines to identify which day it was first found for fear freelance divers may be drawn to the site.

The government says it remains undecided about whether to leave the wreck or remove and preserve it, as Norwegians are doing with explorer Roald Amundsen’s ship Maud, which has laid for decades in the harbour of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Canada promised Britain in a 1997 agreement that it would refrain from disturbing or bringing to the surface any human remains discovered on the wreck or in the vicinity, except if they need to be removed to conduct archeological work.

The wreck offers possible answers to what befell the doomed Franklin expedition, but also the prospect of an archeological treasure trove of artifacts, from military equipment to daguerreotype pictures to items sealed in watertight containers.

Gold is one potential find Canada and Britain have already anticipated. The 1997 deal says London will assign Canada ownership of everything recovered except for gold and artifacts deemed important to the Royal Navy. Should gold be discovered, it will be split between London and Ottawa once coins deemed to be privately owned or claimed by third parties are deducted from the haul.

Canada also promised Britain that it wouldn’t rush excavation of the shipwreck for publicity.

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